In Detaining Terror Suspects, U.S. Sloppiness Reigns Supreme

New military reports released by Wikileaks reveal laziness of both thinking and detail in the handling of Australia's Mamdouh Habib and David Hicks

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This post has been corrected.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA -- A bedrock principle of the American criminal justice system is that it's better to have 10 guilty men go free than have one innocent man be incarcerated. The principle was enunciated by the English jurist William Blackstone and has guided us for more than 250 years -- until, that is, the events of 9/11 unleashed a search for terrorist suspects under every bed. The attitude now is that it's better to round up a hundred innocent men than have one terrorist remains at large, a senior FBI official told me, disgusted with the policy.

Two Australian citizens were caught by this monumental shift in law enforcement -- Mamdouh Habib, an Egyptian-born, naturalized Australian, a father of four with a history of financial and mental health problems, who had gone to Pakistan as a possible place to settle his family; and David Hicks, a lost soul who set out to Pakistan and Afghanistan in search of more adventure. Both men are now back in Australia, leading lives as law-abiding citizens, though it is hard to imagine that either will ever be able to lead a normal life after what the United States did to them.

There is no record of the Australian police ever having raided Habib's house. Could the CIA have conducted a covert raid without the knowledge of the agency's Australian counterparts?

Habib was picked up in Pakistan a few weeks after 9/11, turned over to the Americans and secretly spirited, bound and gagged, by the CIA to Egypt, one of the early subjects of the Bush administration's extraordinary rendition policy, under which he was interrogated and tortured for several months before being shipped to Guantanamo in May 2002.

Habib was suspected of being a "money-launderer and terrorist facilitator," according to an August 2004 memorandum prepared by the commanding officer at Guantanamo, Brigadier General Jay Hood. This is, the general's report says, "because of his extensive international travels." In this era of shrinking borders and expanding globalization, many an international businessman might begin to worry based on that.

The Pentagon report, which was prepared as part of a review of the cases of several hundred Guantanamo prisoners, was among those released this week by Wikileaks. It is marked by errors, some risible if the consequences weren't so severe. The report says that Habib moved to Sydney in 1980; he didn't arrive here until 1982. It says that he lived in "Greenwika." It was Greenacre. It says that he took his wife and children to Egypt, where he had been in the army, in 1986; it was two years later.

"These could be dismissed as trivial slips except that this is a quasi-legal document that was used to justify Habib's detention in Guantanamo for more than three years," Sally Neighbour noted in an April 26th column in The Australian in which she recounted the mistakes.

More seriously, the memorandum says that Habib had "strong knowledge" of an Egyptian Islamic extremist group, Australia's Al Gamma Al Islamia.

Neighbour, one of Australia's most knowledgeable journalists on the subject of terrorism, said she had never heard of that group. (Neighbour's most recent book, The Mother of Mohammed: An Australian Woman's Extraordinary Journey into Jihad, is a compelling and provocative story of an Australian woman from an impoverished background who went from a drug-using, surfing hippie to a convert of Islam, a woman who found meaning among a community of like-minded coverts in Pakistan.)

General Hood's conclusion that Habib was an "enemy combatant" was based in part on Habib's confession that he had trained the 9/11 highjackers in martial arts; Habib also confessed that he had planned to hijack a Qantas flight and poison an American river. General Hood noted, as an aside, that Habib had confessed under "extreme duress."

That's a lovely euphemism for brutal torture. Habib has alleged that while in custody, first in Pakistan, then in Egypt, he was subjected to electric shocks through a helmet clamped onto his head, was hanged by his hands from a hook on the wall with his feet on a roller through which electricity ran, was dropped kicked by guards, was forced to look at pictures of his wife's face superimposed on Osama bin Laden's body, and was sexually humiliated by a female interrogator. (I interviewed Habib soon after his release from Guantanamo in 2005 for the New York Times)

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Raymond Bonner is an investigative reporter living in London. He was previously a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

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